Lest We Forget

I’ve never felt entirely comfortable with Remembrance Day. Quite apart from the whiteness of it all, which sits uneasily with someone of mixed heritage, I don’t think Britain knows how to remember its dead appropriately.

The rhetoric bothers me. Because if you really think about it, there is no such thing as a war hero. War is never heroic. Yes, people do heroic things during wartime and yes, many die trying to preserve the lives of others. But they do so because some selfish arse – always someone who never sees a day on the battlefield of course – wanted to increase their personal power. And that is the central shame of war. It’s an abomination, something that should never happen. It’s easier to brand people as heroes because it means we can take something positive from their loss. But that doesn’t change the fact that war heroes are as fictional as grubby, benefit scrounging asylum seekers. In war there are only victims – the people who fight and the people they kill and those who lose them; and there are war criminals – the people who start it all.

When we think about the wars of the last century, we shouldn’t remember soldiers for “the sacrifice they made”. We should remember them because they were sacrificed, which is something very different. Sacrificed – along with civilians and animals – to political ambition and compassionless ideology.

WWI was meant to be “the war to end all wars” not because it was a supreme exercise of military might, but because it was a futile and shocking waste of life. And somehow the grandchildren of that generation, who spent their peaceful mid-century Christmases watching WWII shite like The Great Escape, have interpreted wars as part of some glorious past to hanker after instead of an atrocity to avoid. And they have given us anti-European sentiment, increased xenophobia and Brexit because they never learned to contemplate war properly, or to fear it. The way Britain marks Remembrance Day is a big part of that failure. We have strayed too far from “Never Again” and into “Honour Our Lads” territory. But war is a dishonourable thing. I read a quote online which said that the best way to honour war veterans is not to create more of them. I wholeheartedly agree.

Why we need to talk about periods at work

This week, MP Danielle Rowley mentioned that she was on her period during a debate in the House of Commons on the cost of menstrual products. Shortly afterwards, it was breaking news all over the UK, with many people debating not only the issue Rowley was raising, but also whether or not it was appropriate, brave or simply gross that she had mentioned her period.

As I waded through the waves of judgement, ignorance and support being directed at Rowley, I started to feel increasingly angry at the way women are expected to draw a veil of silence over their periods at work. Whether we excuse it as a way to avoid us seeming weaker or physically unfit in comparison to male colleague, what lies at the root of our silence is male comfort. Periods aren’t part of cis male experience, so we don’t acknowledge them in masculine gendered spaces of which the workplace, despite all of our best efforts, remains one.

And so, today we’re going to talk about what it’s like to have your period at work, and why talking about this experience has a role to play in reclaiming the workplace as a space for all genders.

 

Here’s my story.

I’m a cis woman. I menstruate. For most of my teens and 20s I used hormonal birth control and hardly even noticed when I was on my period, but since 2013 I’ve used a copper coil and one of its side effects is heavier than usual periods. Picture me, one morning in 2015, as I woke up from a night of interrupted sleep, did an awkward backwards jerk out of bed to avoid touching the bedclothes and hobbled to the bathroom with blood streaming down my legs. As my male partner slept undisturbed, I cleaned myself up, cleaned the bathroom up, cleaned the drips along the way up, got dressed for work and rushed to catch my last viable bus. The bus stop was already in sight when I realised that – thanks to the unpleasant experience that is flooding – my mooncup was full and about to overflow. I had a choice. I remember pausing on the kerb, asking myself whether it was better to get the bus and risk blood running down my legs for the next 45 minutes in order to arrive at work on time, or to go home and empty my cup. On the basis that I worked in an office where arriving at 9.01 was a disciplinary offense, I got on the bus and stood with my thighs clenched for 45 minutes and waddled to my office drenched in humiliation and sticky blood. I got through the door at 8.57 and because it was not acceptable to be anywhere in the building but at your desk at 9am, I had to sit awkwardly and uncomfortably at my desk, log on and wait until 9.20 to go and clean up. By which I mean emptying my cup, wiping away as much blood as possible and wadding my underwear with toilet paper until lunchtime when I could go and buy emergency underwear, painkillers and wet wipes.

The worst thing about this story is that the person I was working for was also a cis woman. I should have been able to call her and explain that I was having menstrual issues, catch a later bus and arrive at 9.30 with no judgement. The fact that I couldn’t do that without being screamed at, made to feel inadequate and potentially being sacked, is something we should all be angry about. Even more enraging is the fact that all of us – men and women alike – treat work as an ideologically male space where female experience doesn’t have a right to exist.

Women shouldn’t have to work in an explicitly male space

Because we don’t talk about periods, we allow men forget they happen and effectively excuse them from having to think about the effect they have on us. Instead, they think about the effect periods have on them.

Now, I am very aware that there are lots of feminist men out there and I am proud of them. And there are also a lot of men out there who consider themselves quite ‘woke’ when it comes to periods. They proudly announce that they are OK with buying tampons and pads for the women in their lives. And should a woman turn down sex because she’s on her period, they will cheerfully say “Oh, I don’t mind period sex. We’ll put a towel down.” Which is my personal favourite because it completely ignores that the woman might, you know, be in pain or discomfort and not want anyone poking around between her legs. Oh, no, the conversation is entirely about whether or not the man is grossed out by blood.

Bringing this back from bedroom to boardroom, because men dominate the workplace, we end up working in spaces that don’t acknowledge – let alone accommodate – our experience. To give you some examples of what this means, in the past, I worked in an office where, despite the fact that 20-30 women were on site on any given day, no-one thought the sanitary bins needed emptying more than once a month. I’ve also worked in an office where the cubicles were so small that changing tampons or menstrual cups required more contortion than my weekly yoga class.

Even worse, this marginalisation of women is happening despite the fact that we are not a minority. We are half the population. So if our experiences can be marginalised in this way, then true minorities won’t even get a look in. If we allow straight cis men, most of whom live with a woman who menstruates, to be so grossed out by our bodies that they can’t even stomach us talking about our periods, how can we expect them to factor the experience of other less populous gender groups into their headpsace? We can’t. And as women, I think we have a responsibility to support other marginalised groups by channelling the strength of our numbers and pushing hard on this issue.

Our silence on this issue jeopardises equality for everyone

Let’s go back to Danielle Rowley telling the Commons she’s on her period this week and raising the issue of period poverty. The best the Tories could do was say they will be axing VAT on menstrual products post-Brexit, bring the annual cost of menstruating down to £400. And that’s assuming the price doesn’t go up by 20% after we’ve waved goodbye to the customs union. So, that’s £500 a year for the privilege of being a woman, until 2019 when depending on David Davis’s negotiating powers it may go down to £400.

Hang on a minute. We can all get condoms for free, because they go on a penis and our government thinks contraception and sexual health are important. So…why doesn’t the same go for menstrual products and womens’ health? I’ll tell you why: because no-one gives a shit. When Rowley spoke,  the House was nearly empty. I could only see two men, both of whom looked as though they’d fallen asleep on the benches and were attending by mistake.

What this tells is that we can’t continue relying on men to adapt their spaces for us. The past few decades have shown that this is a process which is inadequate and too slow. We need to reclaim these spaces immediately, not only for ourselves, but for all gender groups.   

 

Yes, the Leave vote is hostile to foreigners – and you need to come to terms with that

Here’s what the Brexit vote means to me: 52% of the people I share a nationality with think there should be fewer people like me in Britain’s future. And before you object, or make excuses, let me point out that if Britain clamps down on immigration, there will be fewer people like me.

I was born in England. In Hammersmith, to be precise. It’s where my dad was born. And his mum. And her mum before her.

I was born in England, but I am not English. I have roots in London, but that is not the same thing. My dad’s family – his great-grandparents – arrived here as Jewish refugees in the 1880s, ending up as East enders on one side and West enders on the other. My heritage spans the breadth of the city in which the family whose name I bear has lived for a century before I was born. Like I said, I have roots in London.

And yet, in spite of my birthplace, in spite of that heritage, I didn’t grow up feeling British. I grew up feeling foreign. The reason for that is my mother is an immigrant. Worse, she’s a brown immigrant.

Let me give you a flavour of how that feels, because if you tick White British on your census form, you probably don’t know.

When I was little, I lived across the road from a park. It was great park, with pretty flower gardens, a bandstand and a large playground that I could see from my window. All we had to do was cross the road. Except, we didn’t do that, because my mother was scared. Scared because on a regular basis some ignorant xenophobe would call her a ‘Paki’ even though, dear reader, my mother is from the West Indies. It wasn’t that we lived in a rough area: we didn’t. It was quite nice actually. And to be honest the tone of the area doesn’t matter because, when we visited my grandparents in their adjoining and distinctly affluent North London suburb and I went to the park with my aunts, those taunts would come again “Go home, you Paki!” It wasn’t easy to feel welcome.

I was born in 1980. The start of a decade when people from backgrounds like mine were still being treated aggressively for standing out. There were parts of London I only heard of as a child because Afro-Caribbean people were aggressed and killed there. My family were terrified of those places and still, in diverse and gentrified 21st Century London, there are tube stations where I alight with a sudden involuntary stab of vulnerability.

To give you a bit of context, I look white. Ironically, people are always telling me what a lovely, English Rose complexion I have. In the bad old days, people used to tell me that, you know, I could pass for just white and should roll with that. It seems unbelievable, but that used to be an acceptable thing to say.

Is it a surprise, then, that I didn’t feel British for many years? That I grew up in a limbo, feeling the country I was born in somehow excluded me?

Before my mid-teens, London was my place of origin. I could be from London because I could observe people like me there. I knew I couldn’t be English, and I wasn’t sure I could be British either.

I’ve always felt European, though. Because while I wasn’t sure whether the land of cricket and cream teas included or tolerated people like me, being born in Europe conferred upon me the same rights and freedoms as everyone else.

In the 1990s, things got better. Britain became a more diverse and welcoming place. By the time I was 16, British was something I felt I could be. I was glad to be born in and part of a country that welcomed people from all over to join them. It’s one of the few nice things Tony Blair ever did for me, the opportunity to feel comfortable with that identity.

It feels like the end of something

Today, I feel excluded again. Because that 52% – the people we shouldn’t call ignorant or xenophobic or stupid or short-sighted because their views are as valid as ours even if they send all the country’s assets tumbling – doesn’t think people like me have a place in its future.

Well, the thing is, 52%, if you don’t want us in your future, then you can’t expect us to stick with you in the uncertain present. To bring our skills, education and knowledge to bear in support of your economy. To contribute our taxes to your coffers. If you voted Leave, are you aware of how many young people of working age in this country are like me and may not feel they want to be here anymore?

There are other kinds of otherness. Like the fact that for a lot of older people in this country, people who were alive in the 60s and 70s and remember pre-EU Britain, Europe is still just a collection of neighbouring states. It reveals a lack of empathy that they are unable to realise that for most of us born after 1975, Europe is a part of our identity. Whether we call ourselves British, English, Scottish, Welsh, we have always been Europeans too. You’re robbing us of our identity, you pricks!

Poor life choices are poor life choices

For the moment, I am going to exclude protest voters, who, I hope, are educating themselves on the difference between how a FPTP General Election works and how a UK Referendum works so that they never do something like that ever again.

If you’ve voted Leave, the likelihood is that you‘ve swallowed a pack of lies, manipulations and misinformation. I have heard lots of well-reasoned, well thought-out, fact based arguments to Remain (I have heard some porkies too). For the most part, what I have heard from anyone who voted Leave has been inaccurate, preposterous or incredible. I’ve heard the occasional valid reason, too, but they were so niche that I don’t think we should kid ourselves that those are the reasons 52% of those who went to the polls voted the way they did.

Admittedly, here in London it’s quite hard to locate a Leave voter, but here are some of the reasons I’ve come across:

  • I’ve heard a woman I consider fairly well-educated and well-informed tell me that our poor little island can’t cope with more immigrants even though there is no evidence to support claims that the UK is overpopulated and the housing crisis is to do with government policy and development greed not a lack of physical space. Not to mention the fact that the numbers of immigrants aren’t enough to cause that problem.
  • I’ve had a friend tell me about a colleague who voted Leave because they wanted it to be a close result.
  • I’ve had a friend with three degrees tell me that he thinks we should leave because free movement of people in the EU is unfair, that it makes EU migrants feel they don’t have to “make an effort” and that EU migrants are mainly unskilled and don’t bother to learn English.
  • I’ve heard a man tell me he is voting Leave because he is angry about events in another country’s relations with the EU. What the actual fuck?
  • I’ve heard another woman tell me that she thinks things would be better for her son – whose main problem is being a stoner – if there weren’t immigrants taking all the jobs in the area where he lives – which has few immigrants. And probably few employers who want to hire someone who gets off their face every day.
  • I’ve read someone from Plaid Cymru claiming that the Leave vote is about sticking it to the elite. Yet it only takes a few minutes thought to realise that the elite are unaffected by this. The elite have enough money to diversify their investments instead of putting it all in the UK basket. They have prospects and can move elsewhere if the UK goes tits up. If they decide to stay, they can afford private healthcare when the NHS goes tits up. If you voted Leave for this reason, you have ‘stuck it’ not to the elite, but to yourself. You’ve shot yourself in the bollocks, that’s what you’ve done.

Do you think these are valid concerns? Because they read like bullshit to me.

It’s OK to tell people they were wrong

24 hours after the fact, I found myself surrounded by people telling me that Leave voters aren’t racist or xenophobic and it’s wrong of me to refer to them in that way.

No, it isn’t. Racist and xenophobic aren’t slurs – they are ways of thinking and there is a strong correlation between those ways of thinking and the Leave vote:

  1. Immigration is the main battlefield on which this referendum campaign was fought. Anti-immigration sentiment has been a primary motivation factor for Leave voters from all social classes and educational backgrounds. Just look at the comments section of any UK paper.
  2. Within hours of the result being called, people around the country were being subjected to racist and xenophobic abuse which was not a part of their lives 24 hours before
  3. A Leave vote makes the position of every foreigner here uncertain, whether because of their status as an EU citizen or their status as a foreign national who may now be mistreated
  4. Any vote sends a message. Whether you want it that way or not, a Leave vote sends a message to EU citizens that they are not wanted here. It also sends a message to all the bigots in this country that allows them to believe they are in the majority and to feel safe abusing foreigners in the streets and online

It might shatter the cosy world view held dear by some, but xenophobia is a significant reason why people voted leave, no matter how prettily they worded their concerns about immigration. Thinking foreigners are a drain, a negative influence, and that they should be shut out? That, my darlings, is xenophobia.

Why don’t people feel comfortable calling it out? It isn’t abusive or disrespectful to tell people they made the wrong decision when the result has been to send the country into financial disarray and to make huge swathes of the population feel they no longer belong.

I read recently the suggestion that Leave voters might be less likely to be open about their decision. To me, that says that deep down they know it is a poor one.

We need to stop making excuses for people when they get it wrong

The other thing I keep hearing is that it isn’t the Leave voters’ fault. That they were too tired/impoverished/ill-educated to look into the facts. That they didn’t understand how the voting system works. That they are just scared, and we shouldn’t judge people for their fears.

Hypocrites! You’re judging Donald Trump supporters for their fears. So you need to grow a spine and judge these people too. There was no excuse for not knowing how a referendum works – we had one just a few years ago. The media and Leave campaign bear some of the responsibility, but we cannot absolve the adults who made this decision.

For one thing, 52% of voters is too much for the ignorance argument to hold weight. The compassionate lefty middle classes are saying that because, yes, it’s devastating to think that people decided to vote irresponsibly based on emotion and hearsay when they could have obtained the facts.

But they did vote irresponsibly, and without doing proper research or even thinking logically about whether what they were being fed made sense.

As for those people who are too downtrodden to see straight, they are being given far less credit than they deserve. Let’s not lay this disaster at their feet. In most cases they probably did what 30% of the population did and didn’t vote.

As for me – I am a Londoner.

I am a European.

You can’t erase my identity, I will fight you tooth and nail to keep it.

This post previously had an addendum. It upset some people. I generally try to be nice and considerate, so I have moved it.